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Measuring the impact of contributions


A Buddhist monk once said it’s not enough to have good intentions; they must also be wise ones.

Which means in this context that it’s not good enough to just throw money at a cause to feel altruistic. The act of philanthropy continues to evolve as businesses and non-profits reflect on how to create maximum impact in order to holistically address the complex social issues in Calgary.

Impact is ever so the buzzword in the world of philanthropy. The definition is broad, ranging from attending to immediate needs to eradicating systemic issues. Goodwill is indeed benevolent, and it’s easy; but creating impact, actually pushing the needle on an issue, is difficult.

Calgary’s Gena Rotstein maintains that philanthropy should be a discerning, long-term investment resulting in significant, positive societal change. “I’m not discounting giving, but if money was the solution we’d have solved the challenges a long time ago,” says Rotstein, a philanthropy adviser with 20 years of experience. “We just keep throwing good money into a system without trying to solve the underlying issues.”

Businesses leaders who strive to be strategic philanthropists must take the time to understand the issues in their community, she says, and determine how they’ll measure the impact of their contribution. Like an investor, they need to do their due diligence of the appropriate organizations and choose one that provides an effective solution.

It is then important to evaluate over a timeline whether the philanthropy has shifted the issue in that demographic for that specific organization. “Impact is part of a continuum of care,” says Rotstein, co-founder of Karma & Cents, which supports family foundations and family enterprises in attaining their social and legacy objectives.

Calgary’s United Way sees itself as a social impact organization that mobilizes corporate Calgary, government and volunteers to improve lives. It highly values stewarding resources and leveraging investments effectively and then measuring the return on those investments. It’s annual impact report details all of its work and it also produces an annual impact report for each business measuring how United Way invested its donation.

In the area of poverty in 2017, for example, United Way invested $10.2 million, offered 27 programs and initiatives delivered by 22 agency partners and, with the support of 8,415 volunteers, it was able to help 40,703 Calgarians. Recipients indicated they were better able to meet their basic needs of food, shelter and clothing, achieve financial stability and access employment opportunities.

“We believe in collective impact,” says Karen Young, president and CEO of United Way of Calgary and Area. That’s why it partners with 101 agencies that report back on the difference their respective programs are making. And, instead of just serving the issue, they’re trying to solve the root cause of it, be it mental illness, lack of employment, lack of education or domestic violence in the case of poverty. Says Young, “If you know what you’re trying to achieve and what outcomes you want then it’s easy to develop the measurements and generate that high return on community investment.”

Calgary’s Stikeman Elliott LLC partner Gary Clarke isn’t advocating irresponsible charity but he thinks it’s important to be experimental and not get overly fixated on impact. “If we don’t try different things then we miss an opportunity to be innovative in dealing with challenging issues,” says Clarke, a longtime leader in the firm’s community involvement efforts.

Last year the lawyers and staff expressed an interest in helping veterans in Calgary. So, in partnership with the Canadian Legacy Project, they contributed to the funding of service dogs for veterans by holding an internal fundraising contest to name the dogs. Such endeavours rally everyone together, raise workplace morale, honour employee causes and, in turn, help the community. In this circumstance, the contribution will enable veterans to be more mobile and interactive in society, decrease loneliness and depression, and improve quality of life.

Calgary Foundation president and CEO Eva Friesen finds it remarkable the difference a small amount of money can make. In partnership with the RBC Foundation, the Calgary Foundation awards small grants on its annual Pitch Night to citizen-led initiatives that enhance their community.

She was particularly enchanted with the project that created the longest mural in Canada. For three days in August, in the community of Northern Hills, 700 neighbours joined together to paint a 17,000-square-foot mural along Coventry Hills Boulevard that reflects Calgary’s history. When people feel they belong, by contributing to something meaningful in their community, research shows they’re healthier mentally, physically and there are higher rates of job retention and staying in school.

Says Friesen, “In this story, we know there was an impact. Neighbours formed relationships during the project and created a great pride of place.”

One of the definitions of impact that the Calgary Foundation provides is quite simply – the difference that is made. There’s no hierarchy when it comes to doing good and creating impact, says Friesen, and the difference is about magnitude and time frame. “Do you want to make a change in one night for one person’s wounded soul, by bringing a meal to a neighbour who just lost a spouse, or do you want to make a difference for future generations forever in the whole wide world”?

It’s important to not struggle with the metrics of measuring your contribution because it can create barriers to giving. And with that in mind, Friesen says sometimes we have to rely on the causal links we know are proven to exist between certain factors in society. Perhaps a donor was able to help one person living on the street to get housing, a job and their addictions under control. The statistics of homelessness in Calgary might not look any different, she says, but the donor made a big impact that’s transformational for one person.

An optimal relationship between a business and a non-profit includes an open dialogue in which immediate needs are identified, requested and met. Stikeman Elliott has engaged in this type of discourse throughout its 10-year partnership with Inn From the Cold. In its Ugly Duckling program, the law firm specifically asks which issues are less popular with other donors, where it’s harder to measure impact or, simply, what projects haven’t been done.

In response, it has funded fetal alcohol syndrome testing and diagnosis, speech therapy programming, and field trips for children and families. In 2016, Stikeman EIliott received the Generosity of Spirit Award from the Calgary chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

What Benevity is aiming to transform in corporate giving and, in the greater sense, charitable giving is to change the very notion of impact, from what has historically been a top-down focus to one that’s more grassroots and horizontal. In lieu of persuasive obligatory participation, companies should instead be embracing the idea of democratizing their goodness approach by emphasizing empowerment at the individual level, says Bryan de Lottinville, founder and CEO of Benevity, a global leader in corporate responsibility and employee engagement software.

“The most successful programs we administer have a year-round orientation where people can volunteer their time or give to causes, which the company matches, that resonate with them personally and emotively,” says de Lottinville. Benevity is seeing companies recognize that when impact flows from engagement, inclusivity and participation, the more likely they’ll be able to create positive outcomes on the charitable side.

Small actions indeed create an immense ripple effect, across groups of employees, their professional networks, their social circles, their communities…. So by changing mindset and social behaviour, by creating a movement in which every individual is an agent of change – by gifting time, skills, network or money – that will be the force that ameliorates the philanthropy space.